How Narendra Modi's blockbuster movie style campaign strikes gold in film-crazy India
A majestic setting of the sprawling forecourt of the Presidential Palace, a guest list of nearly 3,000 people including the past and present political leadership, an unprecedented attendance by leaders and representatives of eight countries, including arch-rival Pakistan, and a vegetarian high-tea menu.
All of these were part of Monday’s swearing-in ceremony for India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, a euphoric affair akin to the dramatic campaign speeches and a heroic victory lap the new leader undertook in the run-up to his historic win in the general elections earlier this month.
The coronation of Modi was a fitting addition to what felt like a blockbuster movie style campaign, where the supremely confident, stylish and larger-than-life protagonist captivated his 814 million strong voting audience with tools and weapons of modern day communication. And in film-crazy India, where movies inspire everything from marriage proposals to fashion and a respite from the daily grind, Modi struck gold.
That the election results, a mandate Modi won with thumping majority, came out on a Friday – the day most new movies release in India –declared the entire affair a blockbuster.
The man, who as a child sold tea at a roadside stall, is known to have risen up the ranks of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party through hard work and talent. When he was sworn-in as Gujarat state chief minister for the fourth time in 2012, the ceremony was in a sports stadium and in-attendance to bless him were religious leaders and regional satraps like Tamil Nadu state chief minister J Jayalalitha – herself an erstwhile film star.
After he was declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate by September 2013, Modi criss-crossed the country for more than 400 public rallies.
Social media was flooded with forwards of photographs of Modi’s face morphed into images of gun-totting action film heroes, with punchy slogans like Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkar (It’s time for a Modi government) and Acche Din Ayenge (Better times ahead) coined especially by ad agencies. Irrespective of whether people loved him, hated him or were indifferent, they sat up to take notice. In the end, not only the 21-year-old jobseeker from rural India heard him, but even a three-year-old toddler from an urban centre was seen pointing to the television screen and whispering a soft “Modi” after seeing his face on the small screen.
The trick worked.
“They wanted to make Modi the centrepiece of the election. He was an effective alternative to an ineffective Manmohan Singh, a smarter alternative to Rahul Gandhi, a more reliable alternative to (anti-corruption crusader) Arvind Kejriwal and a stronger alternative to his own colleagues,” Abraham Koshy, marketing professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad told The Economic Times. “The voter had to decide whether to vote for him and not. The others in the fray were irrelevant.”
Frustrated with joblessness, rising prices, policy paralysis, diminished stature of the prime minister’s office, they were sitting ducks for a compelling performance from Modi, and he did not disappoint. The man, who took part in theatre and mono-acting in his younger days, displayed his oratory skills on the stump. He spoke, laughed, cajoled, cracked jokes, recited poetry, raised his voice, then lowered it, spoke of himself in the third person, swung the microphones back to the crowd to catch their words and indulged in every possible expressive move to connect with the audience.
“He is a very effective public speaker. He loves a microphone, a platform and an audience and he communicates that comfort and assurance to the audience,” says Prof Robin Jeffery of the Indian Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
“He used everything from high-tech holograms to basic organisation and mobilisation through cheap cell phones and sophisticated apps. His team aimed to cover the tech capabilities of all social classes.”
They say the road to the Lower House of India’s Parliament is through its most populous state Uttar Pradesh. Modi despatched his key aide, Amit Shah, to the vote-rich state early last year to work the ground. The party won 73 of the 80 seats the state sends to the 543-seat parliament. To garner the youth vote, Modi tapped on digital media, a tool that speaks the language of the young.
Some 200 young Indian professionals from top schools who are part of Citizens for Accountable Governance, a non-profit associated with Modi, began working for the campaign even before he was made the PM candidate. Its founder Prashant Kishor, 36, a former UN health specialist who is one of Modi’s key strategists, recruited thousands of volunteers and BJP supporters, researched for Modi’s speeches, gave him feedback on rallies, prepared ground reports daily for state party heads and publicised Modi’s multiple appearances across platforms.
The BJP set the tone for the campaign, calling it “one of the largest” mass outreaches in India’s electoral history, while an overwhelmed Congress party called it a vulgar display of black money. The media termed it a ‘shock and awe’ campaign. “I voted for Modi, not his party, only because of what he said he would do,” said Malavika Mathur, 39, whose hometown is Varanasi, the religious Indian city from where Modi won. “I hope he brings change to Varanasi.”
Opinion polls could not envisage the extent of victory that Modi scripted for himself and his party. Congress was confined to just 44 seats in the House, a rout none of them could foresee and which begs the question: Who will form the opposition?
“Earlier, coalitions were formed to run a government, now it seems they will need a coalition to form an Opposition,” Modi joked last weekend.
The new prime minister must now prove to be worth the people’s vote, and reach out to India’s 165 million Muslims who are uneasy that the country will be run by a man who was at the helm during the 2002 Gujarat communal riots in which 1000 people, mostly Muslims, died.
In his victory speeches. Modi has said he is PM for all and that his government would have no favourites and no one would be an alien.
“Modi has his work cut out – he has raised expectations to incredibly high levels. Living up to these will not be easy,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an analyst and senior journalist.
For some, the expectations are simple. “It would be good if he can bring down prices of food items a little,” said Shikha Sinha, 35, a single mother of two who works as a domestic help.